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New Historicism: “Big Black Good Man” by Wright

Introduction

“Big Black Good Man” is a story by Richard Wright published in 1958. This narration helps the reader to grasp not only the author’s ideas about kindness and prejudice but also reflects the attitudes and racial prejudice that existed in the 1950s. The reader can use the events described by Wright to interpret the cultural norms of that time, which is the basis of the New Historicism analysis. This paper will analyze Wright’s story “Big Black Good Man” using the perspective of New Historicism.

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New Historicism

The approach of New Historicism allows analyzing a work of literature using the information about the culture, politics, and social life of the time when it was written. Essentially, any author is influenced by the cultural environment that they live in, and their writing reflects these influences, such as the common stereotypes or views accepted in this society. Hence, by analyzing a work of literature using the information about the context of the era when it was written, one can uncover more insights about this story.

When applying the New Historicism method of analysis to the “Big Black Good Man,” one can see the racial disparities and the cultural prejudice that persisted in the 1950s. According to Purdue, “New Historicism assumes that every work is a product of the historic moment that created it” (para. 1). Hence, the main characters of this story reflect the typical behaviors of people from different ethnicities and their interactions with one another.

Big Black Good Man Summary

“Big Black Good Man” begins in a cheap hotel located in Copenhagen, where Olaf Jenson is the manager. Jenson is mesmerized when a large black man enters the hotel and asks for a room. Since Jenson is scared of the black man, he thinks of various excuses to refuse, allowing this individual to stay but fails to achieve his goal since the man notes that he plans to stay for several nights. The man asks Jenson to send a prostitute to him, which the latter does, calling Lena. Lena comes to see the visitor over the six nights that he has stayed in this hotel. After that, the big man pays for his room and orders Olaf to stand up while holding his neck. At this point, Olaf is convinced that the man is going to kill him; however, this does not happen, and the man leaves. A year after, the big black man returns and gives Olaf a set of white shirts, one for each night that Lena has spent with him.

Analysis

There are several core themes that Wright discloses in the “Big Black Good Man,” one of which is the ability to interpret events in more than one way. Ambiguity is seen from the story’s beginning when Olaf quickly judges the black man’s character based solely on how the latter looks. At the beginning of the story, when talking to a medical student, Olaf thinks, “well, my tenants are my children” (Wright 238). However, his approach changes drastically when the black man enters as Olaf perceives the latter as a danger and does not want to rent a room to this sailor.

From the perspective of the New Historicism, it is important to examine the issue of race and the attitudes towards different ethnicities that prevailed during the 1950s, when Wright wrote this story, and compare it to the modern times where racial prejudice is no longer a norm. Additionally, Purdue states that one way of applying the New Historicism towards the analysis of a literary work is by looking at it as the author’s recollection of history (para. 15). However, the approach of New Historicism requires one to ask a question of how the events can be interpreted as opposed to reflecting on what has happened. For example, Wright describes the remnants of racial segregation when he writes, “it was not that the hotel did not admit the men of color” (238). This hints at the fact that during the 1950s, racial segregation was still common, and black people had to use facilities designed for them, as opposed to accessing the facilities available to others.

The sailors who have often come to the hotel where Olaf worked were the representatives of a common profession at that time. Olaf described them by saying that they were always hungry for women and by saying that “sailors are crazy” (238). However, his description of the sailors and their typical behavior seems friendly, while when he meets Jim, his attitude towards the man is drastically different. For example, when Jim asks for a woman, Olaf calls Lena but warns her about the man’s appearance. Again, this points to the idea that the race and appearance of Jim affect the way Olaf perceives him, despite the actions and attitudes of the black man, which are friendly.

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Ambiguity is seen in the way that Olaf describes himself as opposed to his reaction when the black man arrives. Wright describes the black man as “a huge black thing that filled the doorway” and as “the biggest, strangest, blackest man” (237). Still, before the man’s arrival, Olaf talks about himself as a caring man without prejudice and states that he has worked and fought with men of a different color. Still, when the black man enters the hotel, only fear stops Olaf from refusing to provide the former with a room. Moreover, the language used to describe Jim is derogative, for example, “black beast,” “gorilla life arms,” mammoth hands” (Wright 237). Thus, this story contrasts a man’s opinion of himself and their actions and thoughts in real-life situations since Olaf describes himself as a person without racial prejudice, yet he is scared of the black man.

The theme of ambiguity and racial prejudice is also reflected in Jim’s actions. Throughout the story, he acts politely and shows respect and trust towards the employees of the hotel. For example, he entrusts Olaf with a large sum of money, approximately two thousand dollars, and asks the latter to keep them in a safe (Wright 237). Moreover, when accompanied to his room, he refuses to let an elderly porter carry his suitcase and does this by himself. Still, Olaf describes the fear and alienation he feels towards Jim, despite the black man’s actions and demeanor. This is an example of racial alienation, which, using the New Historicism approach, allows the reader to conclude that during the 1950s, there were plenty of misconceptions and cultural biases towards people of color.

Olaf’s prejudice towards Jim is based solely on the appearance of the latter, and this attitude is consistent with the findings of the studies regarding prejudice. According to Hayes, during the twentieth century, several researchers focused on the topic of how people treat and perceive individuals from other ethnicities (110). The conclusions suggest that people of color were more often seen as less trustworthy or dangerous when compared to white people. In his story, Wright shows the same attitude since Olaf consistently shows suspicion, distrust, and fear towards Jim. The latter, however, is always respectful and behaves as any other individual would.

Interestingly, Wright’s story is staged in Copenhagen, despite him being an American author. This is linked to the fact that Wright has moved to France, and “Big Black Good Man” was published there (Carpio 10). This country has been a center of cultural development, which attracted artists and writers from all over the world (Carpio 10). Considering this, Wright’s story is even more interesting because it reflects the racial attitudes and prejudice of Europeans, as opposed to those common to people who live in the United States.

Conclusion

In summary, this paper presents the analysis of Richard Wright’s story “Big Black Good Man.” The analysis of the main themes and ideas is based on the New Historicism approach, which calls for an interpretation of events instead of mere collections. The writer goes about the development of the theme of ambiguity by showing that one can see themselves as a good person without prejudice and the actions that reflect the opposite, shown using the example of Olaf. The racial alienation that is based solely on Jim’s looks is the core theme of this story because it reflects how bias towards races does not allow one to see the actual individual and judge them by their actions.

Works Cited

Carpio, Glenda. The Cambridge Companion to Richard Wright. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Hayes, Jenifer. Teaching African-American Literature Through Experiential Praxis. Palgrave, 2020.

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Purdue. “New Historicism, Cultural Studies (1980s-present).” Purdue University. Web.

Wright, Richard. “Big, Black, Good Man.” In Portable Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing, edited by Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell, Cengage Learning, 2015, pp. 237-240.

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